05 September 2013

Review : Emmaus

Author: Alessandro Baricco
Publisher: McSweeney's
Date: 7/16/13

Have you seen Andre?

With that question Alessandro Baricco begins a study of teenage boys and the perils of becoming an adult.

What’s interesting about books like this – coming of age tales – is that they all follow a basic formula. A narrator will make it through. Some bad shit will go down for everyone else. Chances are one will die. One will fall into drugs/sex. Etc. And that formula is mostly a lie. I don't know anyone who lived a life like this. And the closest to it was hardly this dramatic.

There are totemic films in this vein: Stand By Me, My Girl, The Virgin Suicides. Both the film and book versions of The Virgin Suicides weigh heavily over this short book.

The four main boys in Baricco's book obsess over Andre. She is the archetypal aloof, sexy, free-wheeling girl who hangs out with older men and gives blow jobs in the back of cars. The boys circle in periphery, judging. Like Eugenides Greek chorus of unnamed boys, ours are called Bobby, Saint, Luca, and the unnamed narrator. The names feel like aliases.

It all feels like the unnamed boys from Eugenides 1993 debut given more agency in the tale. When he is asked that opening question the narrator responds with “Everywhere”. And it is literal. Our boys follow Andre’s every move, or are aware of it. She is living a life that they can only dream of. She personifies something they cannot speak out loud. It all feels calmly juvenile and benign.

At first.

That’s because our boys are also obsessive Catholics. They stew in a blind self-righteousness that oozes ‘this is what I was taught and I don’t question it’. They perform as a band for mass. They volunteer at the hospital where they empty bags of urine from bed-ridden men. They show up at Andre's house to get her mother to send her to confession.

The homoerotic nature of the Catholic church enters in the hospital. The boys must handle these men. Remove tubes from penises. Then we are told that priests touch thighs and it is ok. That they love Andre because she is masculine. By the time the narrator tells us about giving a hand job to a transvestite prostitute we must question what these boys are up to.

What follows is the destruction of childhood. A literal destruction of the children. All four are torn apart. The tropes neatly checked off. Death, murder, drugs, sex. A vague non-redemptive redemption.

Through the imagery of Catholicism we are treated to metaphors of original sin, Lazarus, the Madonna. Special focus is paid to the Virgin and Christ child. And here is where Barrico draws the closest to his Virgin Suicide inspiration. Andre is pregnant, no one knows the father. She is suicidal. Luca's father is suicidal. Luca is suicidal. They stare longingly at the dark waters of a river.

We learn that Andre tried to commit suicide the year before. That she was ‘insoluble’ to both life and death. The boys seem to follow her there. Only our narrator makes it back to the beginning. A church. A band playing at mass. Him staring into their faces and seeing himself. And then Andre, in the back of the church, staring forward.

There is no movement. They begin where they end. Saint tells the narrator late in the book that there was no ‘before’ Andre. That they were always who they were. There is no nostalgia to be had for a lost childhood. They just grew into who they were. And that seems to be the whole point of Emmaus. A sense of death and resurrection. But the death is childhood's end and adulthood's start and I am not entirely sure that those are real things.

The bleakness feels terrible. Beautiful. Though Baricco’s prose and brevity save this book from being a mere pastiche on Eugenides or Sophia Coppola’s film, it feels too much like a retelling from Virgin Suicides unnamed boys perspective. Which may be reductive. The revelation of Eugenides was that is was book about girls through the eyes of men. This is a book about boys through their own eyes. It is a beautifully written story. But one that has been told many times. And few childhood's resembled the ones portrayed within these pages.

Saint’s final words to the narrator are “Nothing ever happened.” And they may be the truest saddest words ever written. The prose saves this otherwise cliched story. I feel like this makes it sound like I hated the book. I didn't. The writing is magical and captivating. The story pulls you in with atmosphere and a touch of mystery. It's short so you will fly through it in a sitting.

I just wish that there were other ways of telling growing up stories. Ways that weren't so loaded with guilt and fear and adult feelings of loss of something. Something that never really existed.

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